Recent studies (Pew, NEA) have indicated that fewer Americans are reading literature for pleasure these days. The most obvious and concerning evidence of this phenomenon, however, is the cartoonish nature of today’s political divisiveness.
There are various reasons why reading literature has been in decline. Chiefly, we’re devoting more of our free time to browsing the internet, which has the side effect of diminishing attention spans. Secondly, the testing regime in secondary schools has done little to promote reading for enjoyment or edification. And thirdly, today’s state-of-the-art consumer-satisfaction industries are making it increasingly easy and normal for us to barricade ourselves behind ideas and products that merely reinforce our personal views.
Like sugar addicts, Americans are losing the ability to enjoy whole foods. We salivate in anticipation of our president’s next sugary tweet and the skittles of brightly colored media sound bites that inevitably will follow.
Quite simply, we’re losing the ability to sit down for an extended period of time and read a good book.
In the context of the political and cultural problems of our times, a “good” book would be one that does not reward us with what we already know, like and agree with. A great book would challenge us with perspectives, experiences and ideas that are foreign to our present, necessarily limited, mental village.
Great literature explodes partisan thinking. To read Chaucer’s "The Canterbury Tales" or Milton’s "Paradise Lost" is a profoundly conservative thing to do because you are effectively keeping these centuries-old poems alive. But such reading is also profoundly progressive because these remarkable texts will be engaging in ways that neither the long-dead author nor the present-day reader ever expected. Something new will be created in the exchange.
Literature that’s truly great — that has survived centuries of fickle transmission from generation to generation — is in its essence the antithesis of propaganda. A play such as Shakespeare’s "Henry V" doesn’t tell you what to think, it challenges you to make sense of it. Shakespeare’s Henry has been derided as a heartless Machiavellian who initiates a baseless war with France to increase his personal power and he has been revered as the consummate selfless leader who unifies a divided nation. He’s a difficult character to peg, and the manner of patriotism he rallies to his cause is not easy to assess. But this is probably as it should be.
To quote the title of a book by Fintan O’Toole, “Shakespeare is hard, but so is life.”
If anything can wean Americans from their addiction to partisan corn syrup it is a steady diet of great books because literature creates worlds that cannot be explained by the meager categories of “left” and “right,” “progressive” and “conservative.” Anyone who reads Homer, Lao-Tze, Thoreau, Dostoyevsky or Toni Morrison with care will realize how today’s partisan camps are fragile things born of fear caused by an acquired inability to imagine beyond the horizons of one’s own experiences.
America is becoming a nation of malnourished readers and, as a result, a divided land of weakened thinkers vulnerable to ideologues from all sides. Increasingly, people seem to be incapable of understanding one another, and I suspect this is largely because fewer people are bothering to develop a broader understanding of human nature – not just as this nature is on display in our own time and locality but as it has revealed itself over millennia in many different lands and cultures as expressed by countless different writers.
Access to this rich and complicated record of human potential (which is both inspiring and terrifying) is as close as the nearest library, bookstore or handheld electronic device.
Rob Browning is a lecturer at the University of Montana, where he teaches English literature.